Breaking down the walls of the smart home

4 min read
Seth Chinnis
  •  Jul 26, 2017
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One of my first encounters with a smart home was in 2009.

My wife and I just moved into our first house. One of the agent’s selling points for this house was a built-in gas fireplace with a magical mind of its own. When you pulled into the garage, it would perk up and welcome you home with a warm, friendly glow.

At the time we didn’t give it much thought. An upgrade from a numbered parking space was all the magic we needed.

A few days later, I pulled into the driveway, hit the garage door opener, and made my way into the house. Sure enough, the fireplace was on and awaiting my arrival. But it wasn’t until this moment that I questioned how this enchanting appliance actually worked. There was no sign of a separate remote, motion detectors, or high-tech geofencing.

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Several weeks later, it took an incidental press of our garage door opener to reveal the truth. Not only was the magic triggered by coming through the garage, but the garage door remote button and the fireplace remote were, in fact, one in the same. A resourceful contractor rigged a custom remote to perform these 2 actions with a single button press.

So turns out my first smart home encounter…. well… wasn’t. This frankenstein contraption I’ll call Garage-N-Glow was admirable in approach but not particularly practical. But maybe this contractor was just ahead of his time, because this hack hit on 2 principles that are core to smart home products today: comfort and convenience. By using a device we already carried, the remote reduced complexity and elevated warmth and ambiance in our home.

Feeling at home in the outdoors

At BioLite, we make gear designed to power your life outside. And our design team thinks a lot about the attributes of home—what tools you use every day, what tasks you perform, and what energy resources these tasks require.

Only our view of home is different than traditional smart home products. We believe that home can be in the middle of the desert in Utah.

Or next to a cascading waterfall in the Yosemite National Park.

Or perched on a cliff above the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In your home environment, light and power is an invisible commodity. But when you’re off-grid, lighting isn’t as easy as flipping a switch.

Why can’t outdoor lighting function more like your home lighting setup? When you’re outdoors, you still need to perform the same basic functions you would in your home like cooking, reading, and moving around without stubbing your toe (that same living room table is now a gnarled tree root).

“Why can’t outdoor lighting function more like your home lighting setup?”

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The fundamental use of lighting and power doesn’t change when you’re off-grid, but there were no solutions on the market that fully addressed this need. We saw an opportunity to bring the essence of intelligent products designed for home and make them work for off-grid needs.

Enter the BioLite NanoGrid—the first system of connected lighting and power designed for outdoor and off-grid use. The system is anchored by the BaseLantern: a rechargeable power hub and Bluetooth-enabled lantern that pairs with an iOS or Android app. Three sets of string lights, each specializing in a different lighting task, are powered by the BaseLantern. The BaseLantern also has a charging port so it can power any gear in your pack via USB. The string lights (called SiteLights) and BaseLantern are mixed-and-matched to create your ideal outdoor setup.

As we were building the components of the NanoGrid, we framed the user experience into 3 categories:

  1. Setup—taking cues from the home environment to reimagine outdoor lighting
  2. Control—using technology you already carry to open up new functionality
  3. Experience—delivering on the promise of comfort and convenience

SETUP: Inspiration from a home in rural India

BioLite uses a business model called Parallel Innovation. We develop a core technology used in gear for campers and use this same technology to design products for rural markets.

Our first product, the CampStove, is a wood-burning stove that produces electricity from the heat of the fire so that you can cook meals and charge your gear. This same technology is used in the BioLite HomeStove and sold in villages in Africa. The HomeStove drastically reduces the deadly and polluting smoke produced by open fire cooking while providing families without power a means of charging phones and lights.

“Observe real people—you might have a major design breakthrough.”

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Two years ago, our Director Of Industrial Design, Anton, was on a research trip in India and visited a family in a 2-room house. They only had 1 tube light but needed both rooms lit. This family’s innovative solution was to cut a hole in the wall and allow the light to pass through into both rooms.

This interaction provided an insight that came to define the string lighting of the NanoGrid: overhead, multi-space lighting is a priority, especially when lighting is limited. Even in this unlikely setting of smart home inspiration, we saw the idea of comfort and convenience taking shape. One of the biggest breakthroughs didn’t come scouring the competitive landscape for inspiration, but from observing real people.

CONTROL: Building the BaseLantern app

The reason why Garage-N-Glow had the element of convenience was because the remote was already with me. Another piece of equipment wasn’t required to perform an action I would be taking anyway: warming and lighting my home upon my return.

Similarly, when you venture into the great outdoors, chances are you bring your phone along. They are the always-with-us camera, GPS, journal, and emergency fail-safe. We could use a device you already own and are willing to travel with to deliver a better lighting experience.

In order for this outdoor network of lighting to function like your home, we set definitive requirements for the BaseLantern app.

  • Dead-simple lighting control. We wanted the app UI to be intuitive enough so that your friend could pick up your phone and adjust the BaseLantern with zero learning curve. After all, no one leaves instructions for operating the lights when house sitting for a friend.
  • Encourage more enduring lighting setups. Part of the fun of camping is the initial setup because every site is different. At the same time, you don’t want to constantly be moving your tent. You pick your spot, set up the tent, and spend the rest of your time enjoying the experience. The same can be said for lighting, so we wanted to ensure that the app would make precision control of hard-to-reach overhead lighting a breeze.
  • No more playing chicken with your available power. No one wants a dead battery on the final night of that 3-day trip. Most lighting products have a simple battery indicator, but these little lights don’t tell the whole story. Give people more insight into how a setup impacts their consumption so they can better ration their light and power.
  • Automate the experience. Build in intelligence that controls operation of the system for you.

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The early prototyping stage was crucial in achieving that dead-simple lighting control. Our first wireframes revolved around a “function wheel” that allowed quick cycling through the various lighting modes.

Putting these wireframes into InVision early in the design process was revealing. User testing was generally positive, but our over-the-shoulder observations told a different story.

While the function wheel replicated the action of cycling via physical button press on the BaseLantern, it violated our low learning curve requirement. The process of getting to basic lighting modes required too much discovery.

To solve this, we stripped down the UI to the 2 core lighting functions: white light and colored light.

We allowed control access to SiteLights through contextual visibility. Once someone plugs in a SiteLight, the function row shifts to accommodate this new lighting option. Using this modular layout ensured the interface was never more complicated than required by your lighting setup.

The UI also granted a way to control on/off and brightness of your entire setup or adjust your lights individually. This approach more closely resembles lighting at your home because it allows for separate functional spaces: a bright, wide cone of light for your friend chopping peppers in the camp kitchen and low, focused light for you to wind down with a book. But like the tube light in India, this setup is powered by a single source.

EXPERIENCE: Creature comforts for the adventurous

With the UI structure taking shape, it was time to circle back to those 2 core principles of comfort and convenience. Questions listed from our early explorations helped inform these features.

What if we could reduce the anxiety of running out of power? To give users more visibility into their power consumption, the status bar features a hours and minutes remaining metric. These values change in real time depending on your current lighting setup. So if you need to squeeze a few extra hours of light, drop the brightness a couple notches and keep the good times going.

What if your tent could illuminate automatically upon your return when a hike ran a little later than expected? Proximity mode uses geofencing to turn your lights on once you’re in range of the BaseLantern. It’s kind of like your mom still leaving the porch light on for you well into your 30s (thanks, Mom!).

What if the ambiance at your campsite could mimic that of your favorite dimly lit bar? The white light mode allows the ability to adjust color temperature. Warmer, yellow light is more pleasant on the eyes but bright enough to navigate around obstacles.

What if light weren’t just functional but also fun? Accessible from the main lighting screen, lantern effects adds a layer of entertainment to your lantern setup. Specialty lighting functions BPM match, which cycles through colors to the beat of your music, means the night doesn’t have to end when the sun goes down.

Like the Garage-N-Glow, these features use a piece of technology already in your pocket to elevate your experience outdoors.

Launch and beyond

The BaseLantern launched on Kickstarter in 2016 and raised over $800,000. Not only were we blown away by the positive response, but the Kickstarter community proved to be a valuable sounding board. Stretch goals like the ability to add your own shortcuts were a direct result of community feedback and are incorporated into an app update coming this summer.

Building the NanoGrid, especially the BaseLantern, brought many firsts to the BioLite design team. Not only was this our first connected product, but we were choosing to enter a market with no real precedent for our concept. The proliferation of smart home products gave us the framework. Observing people gave us the inspiration. Real people in whatever environment they call home—whether it be a hut in India, an apartment in the city, or a tent deep in the backwoods.

As designers, we love to build. We thrive on the minutiae of moving pixels around to bring a concept to life. Building the BaseLantern app taught me a lot about effective design workflows—so much of the important design work happens before you ever put pencil to paper or pixels to screen.

Beginning this project with our core insights of comfort and convenience provided a barometer for answering tough questions. Defining these insights early helped guard against scope creep and ensured we were building something that truly held value.

For me, perhaps it even started way back in 2009 when I pulled into the garage and hit the Garage-N-Glow for the first time.

Fast forward 8 years, and now I live in Brooklyn with no car (and no garage), and I work for a company that engineers not only a better fire but smarter outdoor lighting.

Maybe that fireplace had some magic for me after all.

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